Tamara Luuk

The abundance and modesty of repeating patterns

It is perfectly natural that Mari Kurismaa and Sirja-Liisa Eelma found an exhibition partner in each other. They both use repetition to build an active background for their works, or a rhythmic pattern that guides the entire image. Also, they are both fascinated by Eastern reflectiveness and a sense of being at one with the world. Their picturescapes are empty of people, yet they exclude no-one. Both Mari’s and Sirja-Liisa’s colour choices are carefully refined and nuanced: one of them uses the delicate gradation of pink and greyish green pastel tones, whereas the other features cold and saturated forceful greens.

Both Sirja-Liisa’s and Mari’s works seem immaculate; they are aesthetically enjoyable and appear to be perfect and meaningful. They both have joyously chosen to turn the laborious craft of pattern repetition into blissful and devoted commitment.

Sirja-Liisa: “The rhythmic repetition of image keeps the painting process active. Feel, tighten, stretch and relax your muscles; move the paint along the canvas surface. Observe the sliding of the brush, its soft and precise strokes. Repeat the motion that you enjoy…”[1]; ,Mari: “There is something hypnotic about pattern repetition; it’s like an overgrown path leading to the world of enchantment and meanings.”

Possible comparisons of the carefully considered structure of these works with mathematical formulae, rhythmic patterns created by a stencil or the automation of a computer program will lose their relevance as soon as we add light created by gradated colours to the barely perceptible trace of the human hand. Mari has captured this light in her pictures; Sirja Liisa, on the other hand, relates to the exhibition space. Sirja-Liisa: “… I have used silver and gold pigments in these pictures, which should act as reflectors. I was hoping they would reflect light, but I didn’t know if it would work. Only now I can see that the light falling from the gallery window makes the pictures come alive.”

Taking a brief look back, we can see parallels in the early artist years of Mari Kurismaa and Sirja-Liisa Eelma, although inevitably against different temporal backgrounds (the late 1970s and the second half of the 1990s, respectively). They both visited Tõnis Vint in his home studio as young artists and attended gatherings there. The influence of Vint’s personality and worldview can be observed in the sensual, extreme orderliness of their pictorial elements and their absolute non-violence.

The timeless spaces and architectural and interior solutions in Mari’s paintings carry influences from different eras: Art Nouveau, Japanese-style Art Deco and modernist stylisation of ornament. There is the sense of distance about them, but it has a unifying rather than a separating and confronting effect.

Mari: “I have tried to paint abstractly and expressively, and it was terrible.”

Mari’s interest in lectures given by Dalibor Vesely at the Central European University in the late 1970s and early 1980s must have been considerably intensified by what she heard in Tõnis Vint’s studio. Therefore, even her master’s thesis defended in 1994, Creation and Open Reality. Connections with Surrealism and Taoism[2], reflects Vesely’s theory of hidden worlds awaiting mediation, which he developed in his lectures on communicative space. To this day, Mari Kurismaa’s work draws on “revealing the hidden connections rather than free invention”.

Sirja-Liisa’s list of exhibitions includes Visual Ahimsa (2004) as well as the video installation Postcard in Five Pictures in Hop Gallery (which partly overlaps with Repeating Patterns). With self-ironical straightforwardness, she admits: “Yes, I am an anxious (petty) bourgeois trying to save my skin… I would like to close myself off in a cosy nest lined with silk, velvet and wool, dab myself with fine perfumes and read poetry, hoping to be left alone and praying for this undisturbed bliss to last forever.” Art critic Elnara Taidre has called Sirja-Liisa Eelma’s painting series “a quiet resistance to the invasion of devalued images”. A very accurate comparison indeed.[3]

However, both Mari Kurismaa and Sirja-Liisa Eelma have also had more restless and radical experiments in their early creative periods. A notable chapter in both of their work is experimenting with the materiality of language and attempts to combine visual and verbal expression. Karin Laansoo’s paper from the first half of the 2000s on Mari Kurismaa’s works from the late 1970s and 1980s[4] highlights their connections with Surrealism, happening, the so-called verbal happening, process art, and sometimes also conceptualism. Sirja-Liisa, for her part, has practiced visual aesthetics that draws on language and figures of speech (“A is a strange triangle with a dash; Pi is equal to 3.14 and sounds like the peeping of chicks.”). The titles of her exhibitions and projects, such as Pattern Dissectors, Õ><Ö and Everyday Vocabulary are quite telling in this respect. Regarding her joint exhibitions (2004-2006) with artist and fashion design strategist Otto von Busch, she has said: “Otto was leading the social aspect, I took care of the aesthetics, adding an element of punk.” Describing the same period, she adds: “I remember myself 15 or 16 years ago, when I couldn’t see a point in producing more paintings. I wanted to set everything on fire…  What saved me as a painter was placing importance on the process and practical work.”[5]

Mari’s relationship with words in her art has been – and still is – distrustful in an old-fashioned way. She describes her early experiments as “a period of scattered experimentation full of intense thinking and questionable results,” later specifying that, “all important things are invisible. Images must contain something inexplicable.” Being verbally sensitive, Sirja-Liisa is open and trusting towards both philosophical theories and literary imagery, saying: “I stand on a landscape, blindfolded, one foot on the territory of the East Asian way of thinking and the other on that of Europe, without fully identifying with either of them. I believe, and I doubt … François Jullien, the French philosopher, hellenist and sinologist, is one of those who will hold my hand and guide me on this journey. Until a new guide arrives. A new boatman who takes me to the other side.”

While Mari’s favourite activity is “wandering in the mental spaces of different eras”, Sirja-Liisa allows herself to be guided by video and film art, poetry and philosophy that are oriented on the flowing of time.

While working and creating, both Mari and Sirja-Liisa seem to allay their hesitations and find answers to their questions by mostly trusting the “process and practice” – the way Sirja-Liisa has described it above.

For Mari Kurismaa this is her first painting exhibition after a long break. Having studied fine arts since high school, she currently works as an interior architect and designer. Her interest and experience led her to play an active role in the art life of the 1980s and 1990s, which have brought her fame as well as acclaim. For over two decades now, she has been working in the speciality of interior architecture, which she attained at the Academy of Arts. In fact, these two commitments have gone hand in hand, influencing each other, earning acclaim alternately and giving each other an occasional break.

Mari Kurismaa made her first large painting in 1983 using string to draw perspective. Her last solo exhibition took place in 1999. When she again started working as an interior architect, she learned how to use the professional software that had quickly developed in the meantime. As a visual artist, she brings the experience gained from this to the patterns of her paintings and applies it to create an irrational enchantment of space. The same enchantment persists in her paintings today, which are very different from the powerful silent landscapes from the 1980s. Mari: “As an interior architect, I am especially fascinated by historical interiors. Moving simultaneously in two different times has created a strange shift in perception and a delicate opportunity to sometimes peek somewhere between times. Turning to painting again, I would now like to try to further delve into this experience.”

Although the times are indeed different, it is easy to draw parallels between Mari Kurismaa’s current work as an artist and the architects and designers of the 1960s and 1970s, who revolutionised the notions of art and its making. However, even in the context of the calmer 1980s and the newly raised troubles of the 1990s, Johannes Saar noted: “This is why Kurismaa can be seen as a bridge between the Renaissance masters and cyber culture: she sketches the land of undiscovered possibilities, using the means that are easy to understand for everyone.”[6]

For Sirja-Liisa, painting has become the only way to love the world, art and herself. It takes, but also gives, a considerable amount of spiritual power and occasionally also involves essays, music, photography and video. Writers, philosophers and poets as well as the artist’s own childhood memories form the background to her paintings and pave the way for their completion.

Sirja-Liisa: “I am an artist; I am a painter. Yes, I grew up knowing that art is painting; I grew up near a pine forest, surrounded by the scent of turpentine. […] We can never really know what the other person is feeling. The best form of coexistence is sharing. We can share time, space, thoughts, various activities, food and drink. We can share a loaf of bread if there is someone to accept it. So, in this sense, the act of acceptance is at least as important as the act of giving. One could not exist without the other, and there is a constant transaction. Experiencing a painting is a similar thing. It wants to show itself and is happy when someone views, experiences and receives it. You look at the painting, and the painting looks back at you.”

The components of Sirja-Liisa’s rhythmically evolving paintings are signs rather than objects: they simultaneously remind us of a lotus flower, a fan, a feather or a wing, a door or a mirror, allowing multiple interpretations and a poetic parallel. A modest reference to everyday life, to something that is “almost nothing”, is also evident in the titles of her previous exhibitions: It’s Nothing, Emptying Field of Meaning and Whatnot. Works displayed at these exhibitions marked the beginning of her consistent focus on repetition eliminating the meaning of details. The automation of hand movement filling the canvas from left to right, from top to bottom and its barely noticeable unevenness is part of the game.

Sirja-Liisa: “The occasional unevenness of the pattern and errors caused by the rhythm of breathing and the shaking of the hand betray the human origin of the machine that created these pictures. The entire time spent on making them is perpetuated in the paintings, which turns them into battery banks of time.” Indeed: the almost invisible vibration in Sirja-Liisa’s paintings makes the air move ever so slightly, signalling the rhythm that measures time and its passing.

“This exhibition is a kind of lab experiment, a confession booth and notes written in a drawer,” says Sirja-Liisa about her series of paintings displayed at the Repeating Patterns exhibition. “I gave up the ready-made concept and decisions made before painting … and dived head-first into subconscious images and free associations. This time the analysis will come after the painting process, and the travel journal will be written only after returning home.”

Repeating Patterns does not exactly form a seamless whole. From the numerous paintings left behind in the studio, Sirja-Liisa could have chosen a harmoniously unfolding series of pictures built on barely noticeable nuances. By deliberately ignoring the smooth flow, she instead empathetically and accurately responds to Mari Kurismaa’s rediscovered pleasure of painting, where there is no place for uniformity or consistency. The result has been somewhat unexpected, as both artists seem to rejoice in doing as they please. By hedonically mocking the logic of the ascetic method, they demonstrate what a superb source of pleasure it can become.

[1] The quotes of the artists in this text are taken from their notes and conversations with the curator.

[2] Estonian Academy of Arts. Mari Kurismaa’s master’s thesis.

[3] Sirp, 23 October 2015.

[4] Karin Laansoo. Materiality of Language. Mari Kurismaa’s Early Experiments. See: https://ktu.artun.ee/articles/2004_1/laansoo_075-106.pdf. Most of the works discussed are currently stored in the Nancy and Norton Dodge Collection held by Zimmerli Art Museum at Rudgers University.

[5] Conversation between Anti Saar and Sirja-Liisa Eelma on 10 November 2017 at Tartu Art House. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSK5k_Y6toct

[6] Johannes Saar. Metafüüsikast füüsikasse. Postimees, 26 July 1996.